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At 144 years old, Kanena Miso & Soy Sauce Brewery in Miyazaki Prefecture is still considered “new.”

“Most in the miso and soy sauce industry have been going for 300 or more years,” observes Yoko Nagatomo Shiomi, the current president and fourth generation of her family to lead the company. “We are seen as newcomers.”

Her great-grandparents started Kanena in 1877 to keep their two sons home from Japan’s Meiji Era (1868-1912) wars. Under Japanese law, eldest sons slated to take over a family did not have to go to war, so with one set to inherit the main family, the younger was given a new family name (records of which have since been lost) and the brewery.

Health food: Mounds of Kanena Miso & Soy Sauce Brewery’s barley miso are displayed for an international market. | COURTESY OF KANENA MISO & SOY SAUCE BREWERY
Health food: Mounds of Kanena Miso & Soy Sauce Brewery’s barley miso are displayed for an international market. | COURTESY OF KANENA MISO & SOY SAUCE BREWERY

Centuries later, the family faced another crisis. In 2005, Shiomi’s father suffered a severe stroke that left him bedridden and unable to communicate. According to Japanese custom, male heirs usually take over. However, Shiomi, then living in Singapore with her husband and young daughter, was the only successor.

Raised in the shadow of the brewery, with its high-ceilinged warehouses and giant wooden fermenting barrels, Shiomi was familiar with the business but knew a steep learning curve still lay ahead.

“I really felt caught between closing it forever or moving home and taking over. … But I needed to make the choice with the least regrets. I could always resume my life in Singapore, but if I gave up the brewery, there would be no going back,” she says.

“I had no experience or knowledge, and knew it was unusual for women to do this kind of work, but I wanted to try.”

Shiomi spent the next three years shuttling back and forth between Singapore and Miyazaki. She worked with her mother and the brewery’s craftsmen to learn everything from managing the accounts, choosing the best soybeans and barley, to the best time and temperature to mix them with kōji spores to start the two-year fermentation process. There were mistakes and setbacks, and days when she wondered what she had gotten herself into, but Shiomi kept at it. Finally, in 2008, she officially took the helm, becoming one of a small number of female tōji (head brewers).

Home ferment: Kanena’s DIY miso kit comes with everything you need to mix and ferment your own classic Japanese ingredient. | COURTESY OF KANENA MISO & SOY SAUCE BREWERY
Home ferment: Kanena’s DIY miso kit comes with everything you need to mix and ferment your own classic Japanese ingredient. | COURTESY OF KANENA MISO & SOY SAUCE BREWERY

Small in comparison to larger makers that produce upwards of 2,000 tons of miso a year, Kanena produces 9,000 liters of soy sauce and 12,000 kilograms of its sweet, Kyushu-style miso, based on her mother’s recipe, annually.

Her mother, Shiomi says, changed the recipe about 50 years ago. “She didn’t like the old one,” she says with a laugh, “and thought she could make a better one.”

Although both are considered staple ingredients in Japanese cuisine, Shiomi was shocked to realize the extent to which miso consumption had declined as families opted for a more Western diet.

“We were losing our food culture,” she says. “Miso is a very nutritious fermented seasoning and very original to our culture. I started volunteering to make miso with children in local schools, who take it home to eat with their families.”

144-year ‘newcomers’: Yoko Nagatomo Shiomi (right) with her husband, Yuichiro Shiomi, hold up a packet of their brewery’s amazake (sweet, low-alcohol sake). | JOAN BAILEY
144-year ‘newcomers’: Yoko Nagatomo Shiomi (right) with her husband, Yuichiro Shiomi, hold up a packet of their brewery’s amazake (sweet, low-alcohol sake). | JOAN BAILEY

While volunteering helped Shiomi reconnect with Japan and Miyazaki, it also inspired her to look for other ways to make miso and fermented foods attractive to the modern consumer. To that end, she came up with dried, instant miso packets (just add water and enjoy!), make-your-own-miso kits and will soon add miso-marinated cuts of Miyazaki pork from a local producer to Kanena’s product list.

She also began looking for other markets. Shiomi reached out to connections in Hong Kong and Singapore, making annual trips with her husband to sell directly at supermarkets and food festivals. They had built a solid following, made Kanena’s website multilingual and were looking to expand when the pandemic hit.

“We are too small for most distributors, so we are still looking for a way to get our miso to our customers overseas,” Shiomi says. “Also, the pandemic is helping people learn how to support their immune systems and the role fermented foods can play in that.”

While she worries, Shiomi also takes heart in her brewery’s history. “Kanena has survived war, pandemics and natural disasters,” she says. “We’ll find a way.”

For more information, visit kanena.jp. Women of Taste is a monthly series looking at notable female figures in Japan’s food industry.

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